Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell on Monday reiterated his call for an increase on a Honolulu rail bailout package, suggesting lawmakers extend a 0.5 percent general excise tax to raise $600 million to $900 million more than the $2.4 billion that the Legislature has proposed.
Caldwell thanked lawmakers for putting together the bailout package but said it was not enough.
Flanked by City Council chairman Ron Menor and members Ikaika Anderson and Joey Manahan, Caldwell said it was worth extending the special session, which was expected to last five days, to amend the bill.
“I know some have said that perhaps this could mean an extension of the session because you can’t amend the bill,” Caldwell said. “But for the most critical project in generations, I ask ‘isn’t it worth getting this right so we don’t have to come back again?’”
The mayor’s press conference serves as a prelude to a hearing on the bill before the Senate Ways and Means Committee, which begins at 3 p.m. Monday. It follows a turbulent week in which the Legislature announced a bailout to save the rail, only to have Caldwell say the bailout package was not big enough.
After closing last year’s regular session without a deal, lawmakers had crafted a package that would rely on two sources of income: a three-year extension of a 0.5 percent general excise tax charged on Oahu and a 1 percentage point increase to the state hotel room tax, from 9.25 percent to 10.25 percent for 13 years.
The increases are expected to raise almost $2.4 billion, $1.3 billion from the hotel tax and $1.045 billion from the general excise tax.
Legislators had crafted the bailout using numbers from the Honolulu Authority for Raid Transportation, which as recently as Aug. 14 quoted a total cost of $8.165 billion in testimony submitted to the Legislature.
But last week Caldwell said the project needed $8.7 billion, and that the Legislature’s bailout package was thus about $550 million short. On Monday, Caldwell said the shortfall could be more like $600 to $900 million.
Caldwell said on Monday that the $8.165 number did not factor in a “stress test” that would measure potential cost increases. The stress test explains the higher costs, he said.
He said extending the general excise tax by five years instead of three, as the current bill proposes, would provide enough money.
If the Legislature’s numbers prove wrong, then the city would have to come back to the Legislature and ask for more money or raise Honolulu property taxes, which could affect the city’s bond rating, Caldwell said.
“Isn’t it worth getting this right so we don’t have to come back again?” — Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell
A city’s bond rating is the municipal financing equivalent of a consumer credit rating and determines how much interest cities must pay when borrowing money by issuing bonds.
“It comes out of their pocket if the numbers are incorrect,” Caldwell said, referring to Honolulu taxpayers and the shortfall they would have to cover. “I don’t want to raise real property taxes, and I don’t want our bond rating to slip.”
Caldwell’s assertion that the project needed more money sparked a backlash last week from legislators who accused Caldwell of padding the costs.
U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, a former HART board member and state Senate President, weighed in, suggesting Caldwell was trying to hide something.
The mayor’s Monday news conference offered a look at his stance heading into the special session, where he will need to deal with the Senate President, the House Speaker, money committee chairs, and even congressional representatives, who had all come out in favor of the bill.
Caldwell did not back down.
At the same time, despite his insistence that the Federal Transit Administration would require a stress test of the project, Caldwell said he did not know whether the $548 million cost he has cited would satisfy the FTA.
“I have not confirmed, and I don’t think they would give me an answer to that question,” Caldwell said.